Jim Kenney

Mayor Jim Kenney

African Americans are sour on the sweetened beverage tax, according to a new poll.

But some Black leaders see the disapproval of Mayor Jim Kenney’s 1.5-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks as a symptom of something more heading into the May 21 primary: Kenney is losing support among African Americans.

“There is a real feeling in the Black community that Mayor Kenney has gone back on many of the important promises made to Black folk,” said Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor at Mother Bethel A.M.E. church.

“There’s a larger issue that it just seems that he is disconnected from the Black community.”

Distaste for the 1.5-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax hit 71 percent among Black respondents in a recent Pew Charitable Trust poll, which asked residents about the top concerns confronting the city, among other issues.

The poll found a majority of all respondents — 65 percent — disapproved of the soda tax, while 31 percent approved.

“Nobody likes taxes, but the polls have shown that people support the programs that the beverage tax funds: pre-K and Rebuild,” said Kenney campaign manager Brandon Evans. Rebuild is the citywide plan to rehabilitate libraries, recreation centers and public spaces.

“I will further say that the mayor enjoys ... support of people across the city, like bus drivers and pre-K parents to labor leaders and, of course, his colleagues in [City] Council,” Evans continued.

The poll was released Wednesday — weeks before the May 21 primary, when the mayor, City Council, and other offices are up for election.

In the Democratic mayoral primary, Kenney is facing state Sen. Anthony Williams, D-8, and Alan Butkovitz, the former City Controller. Both Williams and Butkovitz have pledged to end the soda tax.

Most important issues

The top issue for residents confronting the city and next mayor were crime, public safety, and drugs, the poll found.

In an open-ended question, the 600 residents surveyed listed education and schools as their second top concern (17 percent), followed by a tie between poverty and gentrification neighborhood revitalization (12 percent), then jobs (11 percent), and taxes (9 percent).

Micah Sims, political director of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said the poll comes at a time when some in the large candidate pool — more than five dozen candidates in all — appear to be pivoting from catchy sound bites to specific solutions for the city’s troubles.

“The candidate that is specifically raising up an issue and talking about it in specifics and not in generalities, I think, will resonate greatly with the people who are voting,” said Sims, who is also the executive director of the Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that lobbies for government transparency.

Nearly half of the respondents in the poll — 49 percent — believed the city was moving in the right direction, compared to 38 percent who said it was on the wrong track. The recent figures were statistically comparable to surveys in 2016 and 2015.

Residents also were asked specific questions about the sweetened beverage tax in the poll, which was conducted in March and had a margin of error is plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

The tax is levied on the businesses and distributors. Most businesses, however, have passed the tax on to customers.

Approval for the soda tax was high among city transplants who settled here within the last decade (48 percent), college graduates (46 percent), and high-earning households with incomes above $100,000 (39 percent).

Disapproval was high among not only Blacks, but residents with a high school diploma or less (77 percent) and residents of Northeast Philadelphia (76 percent).

The heightened media attention and political advertising around the soda tax has raised awareness, Sims said, and was most likely coloring residents’ opinions about it.

Sims suggested that the soda tax probably will not sway how Black voters cast their ballots. Instead, he expected the issues of crime and safety, education, job opportunities, gentrification and affordable housing to remain at the heart of how African Americans vote.

“I’m not as sure that we’re going to get caught up in a whole lot of people making the [sweetened beverage] tax an initiative on policy by which we’re going to make sweeping changes within those who govern,” Sims said.

But Leslie Callahan, pastor at St. Paul’s Baptist Church, said the soda tax was one of many issues where Kenney has fallen short of his promises to the African-American community.

“We don’t see the difference in our neighborhoods in access to early childhood education,” she said, referring to the pre-kindergarten program which the soda tax funds.

Are Blacks better off?

Kenney heavily courted Black voters in 2015 when he successfully ran for mayor, Callahan recalled. At the time, Kenney made promises to the Black community, she said, such as ending the Philadelphia police practice of stop and frisk, which disproportionately affects Blacks and communities of color.

Four years later, police still use stop and frisk; most of the mayor’s cabinet is white; homicides are at a 10-year high; the poverty rate remains at 26 percent; and affordable housing options are dismal, some Black leaders say.

African Americans, Callahan believed, were no better off today than they were four years ago.

“I don’t see what the mayor is even proposing that suggests that giving him another term would make us better off,” Callahan said. “I don’t personally know whether to believe him even if he said he had a plan.”

Tyler, a radio host on WWDB 860AM, said he was uncertain where Kenney stands on issues affecting African Americans.

“The consistent refrain is that when it comes to Black people, Mayor Kenney just does not get it or he just does not care. … People really don’t know what make of it,” said Tyler, who is the co-chairman for Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER).

But not all Black leaders agree.

Regardless of the polling around the soda tax, Kevin Johnson, pastor of Dare to Imagine Church, supported the tax and expected African-American voters would not abandon Kenney in the primary.

“You have a few disgruntled persons who want to try to make a point,” Johnson said. “But, I think, on the whole, people support the mayor.”

Rodney Muhammad, the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and paid consultant for the Kenney campaign, pushed back against claims African-American voters were abandoning Kenney.

“I don’t hear a wave of anti-Jim Kenney sentiment” among the Black community, Muhammad said.

While Muhammad admitted many African Americans were not better off than when Kenney first took office, he said the mayor faced structural issues affecting crime, education, poverty that span back decades.

Muhammad said Kenney has put in place investments in education and police reforms to reduce unconstitutional police stops.

“We didn’t get here overnight; we’re not going to change overnight,” Muhammad said.

Johnson also noted Kenney led the city to regain control of its school district after nearly two decades and put the minimum wage for city workers on a path to $15 an hour in 2022.

As for the continued use of stop and frisk under Kenney, Johnson said, “I trust the mayor and his decision making.”

Unseating Kenney would be unprecedented. No incumbent Democratic mayor running for re-election has lost since the city adopted its Home Rule Charter in the early 1950s.

Callahan said there was a sense of inevitability about Kenney winning the Democratic primary and re-election, noting the tall odds of an overwhelmingly Democratic city kicking out an incumbent mayor.

“I’m not sure what our better options are,” she said. “I’m not sure we have a candidate that both can win and who will fix this.”

(1) comment


But seriously folks. Kenney is just another Democrat in a party that talks a lot of waste (if you get my meaning) and never really has any intention of coming through on it's promises. They could institute serious programs to train our poorest people with skills for the modern job market. They haven't done it. They could push for full-time jobs with family sustaining wages. They haven't done it. Why has Kenney avoided debating with Butkovitz and Williams? Because he can't defend any of the policies he's put through and can't or won't answer why he pushed the beverage tax when he really didn't have to. Dougherty told him to do it. If anyone deserves to be a one-term mayor, it's him.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.